Revising the Landscape

Real places. For the most part, that’s where I set my novels. When I began writing the first Jeri Howard book, Kindred Crimes, I used Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro as settings. I’ve lived in the Bay Area of California for decades, and at various times have called those cities home. In that book, Jeri travels to the town of Cibola in the Mother Lode, the old gold mining area along Highway 49. Cibola is fictional but it’s modeled on the towns I encountered there when I took a vacation in that area.

I also write about real places in the California Zephyr books, the places my protagonist Jill McLeod goes when she steps off the train. Alameda, of course, since Jill lives there with her parents. Also San Francisco and Oakland. In the most recent book, Death Above the Line, Jill is Niles, which was at that time (1953) a separate township soon to merge with four other townships to form the city of Fremont.

Downtown Niles

Writing about real places means I pay attention to the landscape as it exists and make every effort to portray it accurately. Although I will exercise the writer’s prerogative. That means if I want to put a café on that corner, I will.

I take field trips from time to time. Most recently, that involved going to the Niles District and walking around to check out what various fictional characters could see from real sidewalks and corners.

The Sacrificial Daughter will be published in mid-February. Protagonist Kay Dexter, a geriatric care manager, is an advocate for elderly clients and their families. The book is set in Rocoso, a city in a county also called Rocoso, located in the Northern Sierra Nevada. It’s the county seat and has a four-year college where Kay’s significant other, Sam, teaches history. There’s a historic narrow gauge railroad that goes up a scenic river canyon to an old mining town called Jermyn. The river itself is known for its Class Five rapids and is popular with rafting enthusiasts. At a midway point are the abandoned ruins of a resort hotel where people still go to soak in the hot springs along Lost Woman Creek.

None of these places exist, except in my imagination. And now, in the pages of my book.

To be sure, anyone who has ever been to Durango, in southwest Colorado, or who has ridden the Durango & Silverton Railroad will recognize their counterparts in Rocoso and the Rocoso & Jermyn Railroad. The landscape and hot springs at Princeton in the Colorado Rockies might strike a familiar chord. The river could be the American or Yuba in Northern California, the Animas or Arkansas in Colorado, or any rugged river where rafters challenge the rapids.

Train above Animas River

The advantage of creating a fictional setting is that I can arrange the streets to suit me, as well as the topography. And most important of all, the history and culture of the place. Kay’s office is located in the former stables behind Rocoso’s historical society and museum, a building that once housed a bordello. That derelict hot springs resort at Los Woman Creek plays a role in the plot. So does the river and the rapids.

That’s what writers do. We revise the landscape to suit our needs, whether it’s putting a nonexistent café on a corner in a real town, or making up a whole county full of towns and populating them with characters.

5 thoughts on “Revising the Landscape

  1. I am dealing with trying to capture the essence of a place right now, namely the Guatemalan jungle. As the only jungle I know is Parrot Jungle in Florida, I have my work cut out for me. Having just finished Death Rides the Zepher recently, I was more than impressed by how much detail and how real you made the 1953 Zepher was in the book. I don’t think you could have actually ever ridden one! I loved the novel and am now collecting the entire Zepher series. A wonderful read!


    1. Thank you, Heather. I’m glad you enjoyed the first in the Zephyr series. I have ridden that route on the Amtrak version of the California Zephyr several times, winter and summer, so I have been in those canyons. And I did interview two Zephyrettes. The rest is my imagination!


  2. Good post! My Gabriel Hawke books are set in a real place, but I changed the names of the towns because I grew up there and didn’t want people to think I was accusing them of murder. LOL And I put my Shandra Higheagle books in a fictional town in Idaho. My new series, will be set on a real reservation but I made up my own casino. I think every writer of fiction needs an setting that they can manipulate to work for the story.


  3. I too use real places, which I think has real advantages–the distances are clear, the arrangements of streets and buildings are also established even when the author rearranges places. Of course, I rename the towns and streets, etc. Good post.

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